American Jews Gaza Strip Hamas Israel Palestinians

“We were used like cows…”

He couldn’t take it any more. He was a nationally-known American rabbi who had publicly supported the Israeli government, despite his doubts about the wisdom or morality of its policies. He had backed its initial military response to attacks by non-state actors on Israeli citizens. But as time wore on, he could not find a way to rationalize or justify the IDF’s willingness to pummel civilian neighborhoods with bombs and mortar shells. Eventually, he reached a point where the Israelis’ callous disregard for Palestinian lives prompted him to speak out. He said, in an angry interview:

I fear that our past public support of the government of Israel, no matter its policy and no matter our reservation, was used by the Israelis to project a world Jewish community completely in accord with its goal and methods. We were used like cows. We were milked, both for moral and financial support—and for the influence we could bring to bear on Washington—and when we were used up we were put out to pasture. Yes it is fair to say we were treated with contempt, and we’ve gone along willingly. But we’ve crossed a watershed now, and our open criticism will continue and increase.

The angry rabbi was not a left wing opponent of Israel’s recent assault on the Gaza Strip. He was Alexander Schindler, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union of Reform Judaism), the largest synagogue movement in the U.S. The interview was in New York Magazine, in the October 19th, 1982 issue. He was talking about Israel’s war against the PLO in Lebanon.

Every major American Jewish organization supported Israel’s initial invasion of Lebanon 27 years ago. The expressed Israeli goal was to stop the PLO from firing rockets into northern Israel. It seemed to be limited and quite sensible. American Jewish leaders were initially told that Israel wanted to create a cordon sanitaire in order to keep Israeli civilians out of harm’s way.

But, under Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, the Israelis took the battle much further, all the way to Beirut. Within a few weeks, it was clear that one of the goals was to rout the PLO and kick them out of Lebanon. The Israelis laid siege to West Beirut for weeks, shelled and bombed the city, cut off its food, water and electricity. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed. Later, after the war, still another goal surfaced, one that was abstract and murky: Sharon had hoped that the collapse of the PLO would force Jordan to assume responsibility for West Bank Palestinians.

American Jews were used like cows back then. What about more recently, during the war in Gaza?

There are a great many differences between the circumstances of the two wars, too many to point out without a lengthy analysis. One difference worth mentioning,though, is that Schindler was hardly the only major American Jewish leader to speak out back then. In his book, Irreconcilable Differences, Stephen Rosenthal devotes a whole chapter to public American Jewish dissent against the first Israeli war in Lebanon. (I also touch upon this in my forthcoming book). Some of the opponents, like Schindler, were mainstream heavyweights who had accepted Israel’s initial explanations for invading Lebanon, then decided that they could not endorse Sharon’s real objectives. This time, of course, the heavyweights have kept silent.

But there was one important similarity:

At the outset of the Gaza war, I–like thousands of other American Jews with ties to Israel–received a flurry of email messages, bulletins and reports of conference calls with Israeli diplomats. I was assured that the goal of Israel’s massive bombardment of Gaza was to protect the people of southern Israel from rocket fire. I was told that Israel was simply trying to destroy the Hamas infrastructure that supported the rocket fire. The goal seemed to be limited.

But the declared goals kept changing, as I noted in a furious post a few days after the war started. Eventually, it became clear that I was being asked to defend an operation whose real goal was to send a message, to show Hamas and the Palestinians under its rule that the Israelis would not hesitate to behave like unpredictable madmen if the rocket fire on southern Israel continued. As Ethan Bronner put it, “The Israeli theory of what it tried to do here is summed up in a Hebrew phrase heard across Israel and throughout the military in the past weeks: `baal habayit hishtageya,‘ or `the boss has lost it.'”

The price of this feigned madness was the death of hundreds of innocent people and the maiming of many more, all in the name of the abstract and murky goal of “deterrence.”


20 thoughts on ““We were used like cows…”

  1. The strategy apparently has not worked as well as hoped, as there has been shelling again this morning, and Israeli military attacks on tunnels in response.

    Exageration makes it impossible to know what actually occurred, yes or no. It makes one dismiss Hamas assertions, and Israeli.

    Bronner was particularly critical of Israel’s prohibition from journalists entering Gaza during the war, although journalists are allowed in now.

  2. Just to note, ANYONE that employs propaganda “uses you like cows”.

    It constructs the necessity to read from multiple perspectives, to form as complete and reasoned interpretation as possible.

  3. Dan, why do you call it “feigned madness?” It reflected an actual madness, as far as I’m concerned.

    Richard, the topic at hand is not just “propaganda.” It is a combination of propaganda and marching orders from the Israeli hasbaraniks. Of course it is necessary to read from multiple perspectives, but Amer. Jews as a whole, like everyone else, don’t have the time or resources to do so. Therefore, they do what they’re told to do, say what they’re told to say.

  4. Doing whatever any single source will lead to dogmatically failed conclusions.

    I have the same aversion to “anti-hasbarakniks”, who get “marching orders” and in the same ways.

  5. Richard I realize you are on tireless campaign to prove to yourself that the Israel Lobby is not as big and bad as they say. Unfortunately your quest leads you to some ridiculous denials and exaggerations along the way.

    I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there isn’t any anti-hasbaraknik (sic) coordinating committee, no memo that goes out every day, no hierarchy, no website monitor, no army of brainwashed bloggers, and no marching orders.

    We are just activists for a cause we believe in. We do not have well-funded organizations. We cannot brag about making the President take our phone call during a speech, or getting 75 signatures on a napkin.

    Could it be that your obsession with “monoliths” (recently on display in your tiresome lecture to Prof. Walt) is merely the unconscious side-effect of your dishonest denial about the power of Zionism in the United States?

  6. I agree that there is no central left committee. Thats why I put the phrase in quotes.

    The same is true of those that support Israel. Many imagine that those that bear mutual support (or mutual criticism) take their “orders” from some central PR station. I’m OFTEN accused of that.

    Its not accurate.

    For example, the only Jewish groups that I’ve ever received any e-mails from are Brit tzedek and similar.

    My concern is to actually consider strategy that makes improvement, change.

    I believe that BOTH Hamas and Israel deserve pressure, that pressuring one without the other would result in further oppression, and for all. (The only exception that I see, would be to urge Israel to HALT settlement expansion, NOW.)

    And, I believe that BOTH Hamas and Israel deserve encouragement to restrain from violence, and to be of help to each other. (For Israel, the restraint from violence is enough.)

    Again and again,
    I suggest that discussion towards what one advocates for, that is possible to be consented to, is the best use of time and brain-power.

    PROPOSAL. Its the real work.

    From that place, if well reasoned, it can be responsibly campaigned for, and like all campaigns that one enters with the intention of winning, undertaken without ANY expressions of contempt for the other.

    I have the same criticism of those that advocate for a single-state solution, that they are negative. For example, Ali Abunimeh could commit his attention to actually working to achieve a single-democratic-state solution, accomplishing ALL of the prerequisites that such a proposal would require.

    But he doesn’t. He devotes most of his attention to Palestinian national solidarity, which divides his time, AND distorts his message.

    You’ve commented on the period of time that Zionists determined NOT to oppose Nazi Germany actively, but instead turned their corner to working for the formation of Israel, even as Nazi Germany was so obviously horrendously repugnant. How could they possibly choose to put even an hour into Israeli institutional formation, when people were getting murdered?

    They turned a corner, having to DECIDE “what work am I doing now?”

    I would hope that Ali would similarly turn that corner, “shit or get off the pot”. You can’t dabble at these things, at least not if you expect to gain anyone’s confidence sufficient to take a very big risk.

  7. Richard, I asked you about the power of Zionism in the United States.

    Not surprisingly, you yet again left that out of the equation when making your latest dishonest attempt to imply that Hamas and Israel are somehow equally responsible for resolving the crisis precipitated by militarist, expansionist Zionism and its becoming an American establishment value over the past half-century.

    I didn’t mean to imply that you were working from marching orders–but Dan Fleshler himself has recently brought to light the kind of emails that organizations send out to ensure “message cohesiveness.”

    And you are more independent, that’s great. Unfortunately you’ve chosen your method of acquiring information: you reject the work of renowned scholars out of hand (Mearsheimer, Pappé), while praising the most partial of chauvinists and charlatans.

  8. Dan,

    If American Jews behaved like cows and were milked, it was because they were happy to. Having lived with images of Jews as weaklings, cowards, and shylocks for years. Suddenly they could exalt in images of Jews as heroic farmers, soldiers, pilots, and secret agents. American Jews were happy to be treated like cows, because they could absorb by reflection the admiration of European and American gentiles for Israel. This began to change after 1982 in Europe but continued in America.

    The American Jewish community is gradually becoming split ideologically between those who are naturally conservative, militaristic, and statist and side with the Likud and the religious nationalists and those who are naturally liberal or dovish and side with Labor, Meretz, or the Palestinians.

    If a two-state solution seems to fade from the horizon and becomes more impossible or impractical this contradiction will increase.

  9. It has been close to thirty years since the Lebanon debacle and still Israel insists on the same-old tired lines about their objectives only for it to amount to something more horrific (and as we talk about Gaza, nothing has changed in the West Bank: the same old, same old). And it is not as if there hasn’t been ample opportunity to be a brave voice and stick your guns as opposed to resting on your laurels here.

    Richard, I cannot speak for Abunimeh (and I’m sure he’d be more than willing to answer any question about his advocacy for a single-state and what he proposes) but he seems to be more than open for a forum to discuss the possibilities of such a solution (he even wrote a [flawed] book about it). Sadly, he is used more as a dissenting voice for all things propaganda rather than an advocacy voice for a single-state, hence the focus on the barriers for two states.

    Dan: Is there any reason in your opinion why there has been such a muzzling of dissent on the latest action in Gaza? Lebanon seemed to open the floodgates for IDF criticism and the Gaza war has plenty of fruit to pick at and call it rotten. So why still the silence? (I know there are some circles who are not but you hinted that there has not been the same outburst as the 82 operation.)

    Secondly, if Israel’s officials knew beforehand that they were not going to get the full backing of their American organisations, would that prevent them from launching such a disastrous policy? Sometimes I think they do this just to test out how far they can “milk” them.

  10. Joshua, good questions. Why was there more noise from Am. Jews who were unhappy with the first Leb War? First of all, let’s not exaggerate the extent of the opposition, as most groups in the organized community toed the Israeli line, But there were loud and prominent exceptions. One reason is that there was a substantial opposition movement within the Zionist left in Israel, especially after Sabra and Shatilla. That made it easier for at least some Jews in the organized community here to feel at least a tad more comfortable withy open dissent –like Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer and others who signed an ad that supported Peace Now in the NY Times. That was the beginning of a movement that eventually coalasced into Friends of Peace Now.

    There was little opposition within Israel this time around from anyone except the non- or post-Zionist left, obvoiously

    Also, there had been opposition simmering against Began and Sharon since 1977, mostly behind closed doors. The Leb war eventually heated it up, and it burst through the doors. The Kadima/Labor unity government hasn’t provoked the same kind of repressed hostility.

    Your second question is even more complicated, and I need to go to bed now. Sorry!

  11. MM,
    Zionism has multiple voices in the United States, some organized, some personal; some reactionary and bigoted, some conditional, some working for “good neighbor to good neighbor” status, some unconditionally anti-Zionist.

    I’m between conditional and “good neighbor to good neighbor”.

    The significance of J Street is to demonstrate that there are important voices that support Israel to be in fact “good neighbor to good neighbor”.

    None in AIPAC or in J Street suggest that exposing Israeli civilians to shelling is effective diplomacy, that results in material improvement to Palestinian society.

    Within AIPAC even there is a range of opinions of what risk Israel should take to realize conditional reconciliation with Palestine, and to enact unconditional human decency.

    Unconditional human decency is in the mix at some level (too often very insignficant) of so many in both J Street and even AIPAC, to give me some hope for reconciliation, at least on the pro-Israel end.

    Politically, the voices of caution (to the extent of paranoia), still dominate over the voices of collaboration.

    Obama is firmly committed to the collaborative, the reconciliatory, and Israel HAS TO either join that approach, or in the worst case navigate around it.

    I would hope that the left would join the collaborative approach, rather than the objection approach.

    On Hamas, I personally feel that Hamas is more responsible than Israel for the breakdown of the cease-fire, though Israel is obviously more responsible for deaths, physical and psychological harms (trauma) to Gazan Palestinians.

    That adds up to me to Hamas having MORE influence, more power, over the outcome, but that there choices of goals are limited.

    By resistance, they will never achieve 67 borders, or single-state. By assertive negotiation, 67 borders are possible. If they desire a single-state (with equal voting in a plebiscite offered to diaspora Palestinians), their only option is delay, as that will force the issues that Carter and many others (including the Kadima acknowledgement) of three bad options for Israel in an environment of Palestinian plurality in Gaza/Israel/Palestine.

    So, they can force likely reenactment of 48 war, but with MUCH more sophisticated weapons and inevitably MUCH more suffering, and that gives cover for Israeli dispossession of Palestinians, or they can more confidently convince Israel that they SEEK to reconcile at 67 borders.

  12. On my sources of information.

    I read Pappe, Chomsky, Finkelstein.

    I take their points seriously, the ones that seem plausible to me.

    They are not a monolith. I can’t say that I’ve been impressed by the works of Pappe that I’ve read. I read a history of Palestine last year, immediately following a read of Baruch Kimmerling on the same subject, and a reread of Righteous Victims by Bennie Morris.

    Pappe employed too much damn rhetoric and did not substantiate his generalizations. I dismissed his conclusions. I already got the message of Palestinians’ experience from the other new historians and some Arab and Palestinian histories, and didn’t need his “marching orders”.

    I don’t see adopting militancy or solidarity for militancy as accomplishing anything of value for Palestinians or for Israelis. ANY militant interpretation adds up to a distortion for its either/or implications. (By either/or I mean a conclusion that necessarily results in war from failure to acknowledge the relative validity of the others’ experience and interpretation.)

  13. Personally Dan, I think the Gaza operation had little to no opposition because it was rather limited in scope (three weeks as opposed to months to years of Lebanon’s occupation) AND the fact that the IDF sustained few casualties. Certainly if this Operation were fully extended where most of the conscripts had to be put in harm’s way in a guerrilla war their soldier’s lives (and maybe sometimes the lives of Gazans) would have been put in the equation if this is effective.

    The IDF does learn from its mistakes, well, some of them. I wonder then why there is so much skepticism of Hamas that they had to be ignored (not that skepticism is a bad thing) but so little when your own officials are doing something drastic to peddle the “security” line.

  14. Until Hamas participates in a full reconciliation with Fatah, OR asserts that Gaza is separate from West Bank Palestine, then the most peace that is possible in Gaza is cease-fire.

    The implications of forming separate agreements with separate parties is daunting.

    Israel cannot now simply remove 475,000 Jewish home-owners (even if their title is ambiguous) and establish 67 borders as sovereign.

    The status of the settlements is a literal fact on the ground, whether illegal or not. Other more creative means to address their status would be needed, and that would take a single Palestine to negotiate with.

    Especially if Hamas insists that its shelling of civilians is periodically “retaliation”/solidarity for events on the West Bank.

  15. Dan,
    EVERY party in this conflict (and certainly the US, even Obama) has changed their description of what the goals of their actions were.

    Consider that Hamas periodically claims that it is shelling civilians because of actions done by Israel in the West Bank, some because of the blockade, some because of actions that Israel does in Gaza.

    I haven’t seen any indication of “ONLY an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as in putting a finite name or event on each shell, then STOPPING.

    They shell alternately for the “condition” that Israel has not opened normal access to Israel, through the border crossings. Then, for “retaliation”.

    Maybe they do a rigorous and religiously disciplined accounting.

    Israel certainly applied the “shock and awe”, Powellian “overwhelming force” doctrine, not “ONLY an eye for an eye” as defined in Torah, as LAW.

  16. I disagree: Israel can do what is possible to favour peace, war, or bantustans. Clearly they are capable of doing so, even without the consent of a Palestinian negotiator (since they bypass them all the time anyway). Although the number of settlers in Gaza was less than 10,000, the IDF and Israel, when pressure applied are more than capable of withdrawing, deoccupying and leaving the settlements. It’s just a matter of whether it wants to face the aftermath of doing such a task.

    Hamas and Fatah have been hinting at unitary talks, and I’ve read on a few sources that Hamas is willing to use non-President Abbas to be the figurehead for negotiations with US and Israel since that actually helps their PR with “not dealing with the enemy”. Ultimately, both need each other (for now) but I can understand Hamas being very, very wary of an Abbas-led initiative. Also, Hamas is willing to recognise any proposal so long as it is put to a referendum; Hamas listens to their constituents and responds in kind, in polar opposite to that of Fatah in years and decades past.

    In a note of further irony: Hamas concedes to 67 borders annulling their calls for a “free Palestine” and then we get another precondition(s), the settlements has to stay AND there would be not one Palestinian who gets to back to his/her former home in Israel proper. I wouldn’t be surprised if that gets laughed at.

    Possibly the best scenario would be to give the settlers a choice of living in Israel (and be fully compensated) or live in a Palestinian state under Palestinian laws, whatever they choose them to be.

  17. Richard, you don’t ever consider the resources Hamas is operating with in Gaza? They don’t even have the customs revenues that Israel is withholding (ILLEGALLY). They barely have bread for people to eat–there are reports (sorry not in NY Times, Richard) that some Gazans are eating GRASS for lack of food.

    Shimon Peres said at Davos today, disgustingly: there was no “siege” of Gaza, there was no “starvation”.

    Are Zionists simply incapable of owning the death and destruction they cause? Is it ALWAYS either the victims’ fault or ‘an anti-Semitic canard’? Apparently.

  18. The old Jabotinsky Zionists always described the Israel/Palestine question as either/or. They never acknowledged that there could be any coexistance in the land from the sea to the river.

    I cringed at that, that we couldn’t make room to live and let live.

    I never experienced the urgency of the post-holocaust era, the desparate (and hopeful motivation), so co-existance was my wish, and I struggled to conceive of ways to get there.

    I think a six-year Netanyahu administration will be the end of the two-state prospect, and the only solidarity that one could offer would be for a cosmopolitan and fully democratic Israel.

    And, I don’t find that that is really prospectively peaceful.

    I don’t see that the left or any other group is offering the skillset to reconcile the likely strife there.

    There is too much anger, and too little maganamity of mind, too little acceptance of the other.

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